Irises in Art History- a (Belated) Milestone Celebration
Ok, I knew I was forgetting something. Amongst the settling of spring, hay fever spikes, crabapple blossoms and magpie turf wars, I've had a distinct impression that I'd casually missed a loop somewhere. Funnily enough, a belated clue was hidden in my Mum's front garden. After a week of solid rain, sodden bearded iris heads stalked out on bright green stems, their earnest nodding eager to impart. This afternoon, as more rain sifted in I thought about the irises and realised it. Checking back over my entries, it was confirmed. September 21, 2021 - I'd missed an anniversary with little but a brief hit of presque-vu when winter began to turn.
While I did forget IRIS28.art made its first grand sail around the digital sun in September, posting regular articles has been a gentle process based on a love of research driven by curiosity rather than chaos. No deadlines and no word counts. I began IRIS28 as a way to pluck strands of knowledge and history and shape them into a cohesive coil of information. A public blog would keep me accountable, it would be a way to memorize dates and explore movements from prehistory to Corporate Memphis (on the to-write list). And so far so good.
Anyway, when I started IRIS28 I inadvertently began compiling a mental library of our iridescent floral emblem. The IRIS component of this site title pertains to the aperture iris in a camera, and it is also my birth flower. So for a rather late anniversary celebration, here is a quick and rather specific article looking over my favourite artistic renderings of the iris in bloom. Thanks all!
Irises at Yatsuhashi (after 1709)
Working chronologically, Irises at Yatsuhashi is a stately masterpiece blending tradition with both natural and artificial subjects. Set across a ground of opulent gold-foiled paper screens, the energetic blue iris heads group in densely clumped green stalks, parting for an angular wooden bridge.
This artwork refers to an episode in the Ise Monogatari, a collection of Japanese poems and narratives dating back to the Heian period. Exiled from Kyoto after an affair with a court lady, the story’s unnamed protagonist stops at a stream by a rugged bridge. The sight of irises prompts him to write a love poem, the first syllable of each line forming the Japanese word for irises (kakitsubata). Irises at Yatsuhashi was made 5 to 12 years after Ogata Kōrin made Irises, which is stylistically similar but lacks the bridge of the more recent iteration.
Iris Florentina and Iris Germanica (1802)
Pierre-Joseph Redouté was a botanist and painter from Belgium. Known for his watercolours of flowers, he had numerous works published as large coloured stipple engravings. Nicknamed the Raphael of Flowers, Redouté has been hailed as the greatest botanic illustrator of all time. Today, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Library of Congress and other prestigious libraries have made much of his work accessible online. Reproductions of popular prints by Redouté including Iris Florentina and Iris Germanica are available from countless print and poster shops worldwide.
Grasshopper and iris (late 1820s)
By Katsushika Hokusai
Best known for his Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831), Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist of the Edo period, producing over 30,000 paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, and images for picture books overall. Hokusai is known for his innovative compositions and remarkable drawing technique, exemplified in this print of bearded irises and a small grasshopper, a symbol of good luck to complement the auspicious flower.
Horikiri Iris Garden (1857)
by Utagawa Hiroshige
Printed in the last year of ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige's life, Horikiri Iris Garden was part of Meisho Edo hyakkei, known in the West as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. As one of Hiroshige's most celebrated works, the series influenced Western artists like Monet and van Gogh and depicted scenic sites of Edo over seasonal change.
Domestic and international audiences admired Hiroshige's use of unique and bold compositional choices and vivid colour selections. Horikiri Garden in the Katsushika Ward has a marshy landscape ideal for growing irises, and there is evidence that the flowers there were cultivated in the area as early as the Muromachi period (1333–1568). In this print, Hiroshige celebrates the beauty of the flower by incorporating distant sightseers seemingly peering between the stems of the beautiful blooms.
White Iris (1887)
Mikhail Vrubel was a Russian painter, draughtsman and sculptor. Prolific and innovative, Vrubel is characterized as one of the most important artists in the Russian Symbolist tradition and Modernist art. Vrubel developed an early reputation for his oil paintings and earthenware sculptures bared around Russian folklore. The figure of the Demon later became a common motif in Vrubel's oeuvre and was read as a personification of the artist's own inner turmoil. Spiritous and dark, White Iris is an atmospheric rendering of the iris, wilted and isolated, yet distinguished in the negative space.
by Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh started painting his famous Irises within a week of entering the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, in the last year before his death in 1890. Van Gogh's brother Theo submitted the painting to the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in September 1889, together with Starry Night (1888). Theo wrote to Vincent about the exhibition, saying: "[The painting] strikes the eye from afar. The Irises are a beautiful study full of air and life".
In 1987, Irises became the most expensive painting ever sold, maintaining the record for two and a half years. The painting was later sold in 1990 to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. As of 2022, Irises sits at thirty-first on the inflation-adjusted list of the most expensive paintings sold to date.
by Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh marked both his entry into and exit from the asylum at Saint-Rémy with irises. Van Gogh painted only four still lifes while at the asylum, two of irises and two of roses. In this painting, van Gogh wanted to create a muted effect by painting the violet flowers against a pink background. Both the violet and pink have since faded due to fugitive red pigments, yet a softened effect remains. This painting was one of van Gogh's paintings that Anna Carbentus van Gogh, the artist's mother, owned before her death in 1907.
By Julie de Graag
Heavily influenced by nature, the majority of Julie De Graag's subjects are drawn from the natural world. Born in Gorinchem in the Netherlands in 1877, De Graag moved to The Hague to study at the Royal Academy of Art. She then became the protégé of her tutor and art critic HP Bremmer. In 1904 De Graag moved to North Holland where her bold and distinctive graphic style evolved under the influence of sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa. She is best known for her art nouveau style woodcuts which she produced using end grain, a difficult timber to work with but rendered much cleaner printwork.
On New Year’s day, 1908, De Graag's house burned to the ground. While she escaped, much of her work was lost. Only a small collection of her artworks survive today - one being the masterfully layered sketch of an iris.
Iris Kæmpferi (1896)
by Kazumasa Ogawa
Ogawa Kazumasa was a Japanese photographer, printer and publisher. A pioneer in printing and photography during the Meiji era, Ogawa opened the first photographic studio in Tokyo in 1884. Previously studying collotype printing in Boston, Ogawa set up Japan's first collotype business in 1889.
A gelatin-based photographic printing process invented by Alphonse Poitevin in 1855 to print images in a wide variety of tones without the need for halftone screens, Ogawa used the collotype method to print the only photographic journal and magazine available at the time. This photograph, titled Iris Kæmpferi, was made using the collotype method, with subsequent hand-colouring creating subtle and evocative tonal renderings.
Escargots et champignon. Coccinelles et capillaires, étoffe. Faisan dorés et iris, bordurefrom L'animal dans la décoration (1897)
by Maurice Pillard Verneuil
A French artist and decorator of the art nouveau movement, Maurice Pillard Verneuil became well-known for his contribution to the art deco scene and, in particular, his use of bold, floral designs in tiles, wallpapers and other furnishings. Verneuil studied and developed his style from Eugène Grasset, a Franco-Swiss pioneer of Art Nouveau design. Inspired by Japanese art and nature, Verneuil's designs feature bold, repetitious subjects and patterns. Here, the geometric iris flourishes against the neutral space between the pheasant and plant.
By Alphonse Mucha
In 1896, Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha began publishing posters in large print runs. For a modest price, buyers could purchase a poster designed by Mucha and hang it for purely decorative purposes. His first run, titled The Seasons depicted four different women in decorative floral attire representing each season of the year.
The gamble was a success and Mucha followed up with a series titled The Flowers - one of which was based on the personification of the iris. In the artwork, titled Iris, a woman with tousled hair wears an off-shoulder dress and jewellery that mirrors the anthesis of an iris flower. Barefooted, Iris casually slips a stem between two fingers, as larger iris heads form a resplendent halo from behind.
By Stanisław Wyspiański
Polish playwright, painter, poet, and interior and furniture designer, Stanisław Wyspiański was one of the most multifaceted Polish artists of his time, successfully weaving the trends of modernism with themes of the Polish folk tradition and Romantic history. From designing stained glass windows to sketching and painting, Wyspiański focused on soft pastels to draw his acquaintances, friends, family and the landscape. In Irises, Wyspiański used an energetic physical technique to enliven his floral subjects. A bold colour selection sections the petals touched by concentrated light from those receding into shadow.
Magnolia and Irises (1908)
By Louis Comfort Tiffany
The Tiffany Studios window was designed as a memorial to the Frank family of New York and was originally installed in the mausoleum of a Brooklyn cemetery. While the River of Life is a prominent theme in Tiffany Studio landscapes for this period, it is the glow of irises on the river bank that truly bring the window to fruition. Symbolic of faith, the irises are made from textured glass with streaks and flecks of blue, amethyst and fuchsia, accented with flecks of yellow to form the flowers’ beards.
Dykes Genus Iris. [online] Available at: http://aleph0.clarku.edu/~djoyce/iris/dykes/
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Helvey, Jennifer. Irises: Vincent Van Gogh in the Garden. Getty Publications, 2009
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Sherlock, Siriol. Botanical Illustration: Painting With Watercolours. Batsford, 2007
Sloan, J. (n.d.). Magnolias and Irises. [online] Sotheby’s. Available at: https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2021/dreaming-in-glass-masterworks-by-tiffany-studios/iris-window.
The J. Paul Getty Museum Collection. (n.d.). Irises (The J. Paul Getty Museum Collection). [online] Available at: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/103JNH.
University, A.T.A.C.L.I. an E.M. at C.S. and Fullerton (2015). Five Ways of Seeing Van Gogh’s Irises. [online] Getty Iris. Available at: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/five-ways-of-seeing-van-goghs-irises
Vangoghmuseum.nl. (2019). Irises - Van Gogh Museum. [online] Available at: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0050V1962
www.christies.com. (n.d.). 10 things to know about Hokusai | Christie’s. [online] Available at: https://www.christies.com/features/10-things-to-know-about-Hokusai-9742-3.aspx
www.library.metro.tokyo.lg.jp. (n.d.). Famous Places in Edo, Hundred Beautiful Women, Horikiri Shōbu (Edo Meisho Hyaku-nin Bijo Horikiri Shōbu). [online] Available at: https://www.library.metro.tokyo.lg.jp/portals/0/edo/tokyo_library/english/modal/index.html?d=5427
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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.